By Carl Kruse
Most of us wonder when looking at the sky – into the infinite vastness of space — if there could be intelligent life out there, other beings we could communicate with, learn from, or even meet one day. In spite of decades of Hollywood films depicting E.T.s we have yet to find solid evidence of intelligent life anywhere. Aliens at Area 51? No one has even seen an ashtray from a UFO let alone other physical artifacts. Let us say the evidence for aliens having visited us is inconclusive to put it generously. However, the vastness of the universe, its chemistry and physics being the same everywhere, and the probability that what happened on Earth, which is to say the rise of intelligent life, likely happened elsewhere, makes for a compelling case the universe teems with life. It’s in our nature to seek answers, to find exciting new adventures to embark on.
That is why for the last 20 years many of us have shared our personal computing power with scientists from the University of California, Berkeley SETI@Home project. It was conceived by computer scientist David Gedye, who had this crazy idea that if we linked enough personal computers over the internet we could create a virtual supercomputer, and use it to scan the vast data collected by radio telescopes that look for alien signals. Some people laughed at the time, but a few years later in 1999, Gedye and his collaborator David Anderson launched the project. People showed up in droves, I being one of them, along with 2.6 million people across 226 countries, to help SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and in doing so gave birth to the largest distributed computing project in human history. Later, Dan Werthimer who also helped launched SETI@Home and is now its chief scientist, would marvel at how the project exceeded all expectations.
What Is SETI?
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) aims to answer the question, “Are we alone?” and at the forefront of these efforts is the non-profit group The SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California. This organization conducts wide-ranging research and educational outreach in astronomy, the origins of life, chemical evolution, and of course, SETI. I have written about them before here and also here and again here.
It was astronomer Frank Drake who in 1960 conducted the first SETI experiment when he tuned the 85-foot dish at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia towards the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani to see if he could detect radio signals indicating intelligent life. These stars were chosen because they were relatively close to Earth and their age was similar to that of our sun. He named his experiment “Project Ozma,” after the mythical queen in “The Wizard of Oz.” After four months of listening to static, Project Ozma failed to detect any transmissions and ended. Drake would dedicate his life to SETI and is probably best known for his formulation of the “Drake Equation,” used to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations alive now in our galaxy. The Drake equation is as follows:
N = the total number of intelligent civilizations
R∗ = the average rate that stars form in the Milky Way.
fp = those stars on which planets form around them.
ne = the average number of these planets that could support biology.
fl = the percentage of these planets that do develop life.
fi = the percentage of these planets that go on to develop intelligent life.
fc = the percentage of societies that develop interstellar communication, e.g., radio transmissions.
L = the time such civilizations stay alive.
Most of the values of the equation are speculative of course, but becoming less so, as research continues. Drake’s pioneering work gave rise to other SETI efforts.
How Did SETI@Home Work?
Would-be alien hunter volunteers would install a free program on their personal computer that would run in the background and when the computer was idle, would grab a snippet of radio telescope data and happily crunch the numbers, sending information back and forth to SETI. The goal was to find conclusive evidence of E.T. signals amid the data.
After about 1.5 million days worth of computer time, Berkley has hit pause on the at-home program so the team can sort through their backlog of data and publish their findings. The team says they have reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to sending out new data because there is so much backend work to be done. The problem with searching the sky for radio signals is there is so much sky to monitor and the SETI team is small. You have to listen in the correct place at the correct time to capture anything that’s sent. The chances of success are rather small given the vastness of space, but yet there is always a possibility of finding something wonderful, and curiosity compels the project forward.
SETI enthusiasts need not worry, as the project is keeping the website and forums open so they can continue to communicate about their shared obsessions. If you would like to visit, say hello to me at Carl Kruse SETI Profile. The team even says there are other projects that might step up and take advantage of the joint computing power for work in cosmology and pulsar projects. They also would consider the idea of un-pausing SETI@Home at a later date. There are always new bits of sky to search.
Filling The SETI@Home Void
If you’re an ex-alien hunter in need of a new mission, fear not, the scientific community still needs you. Science is all about data and the more data points the better, but some projects have so much data that even the most advanced supercomputers would take years to analyze some problems. That’s what gave rise to the initial idea of “distributed computing,” such as the network created by SETI@Home – to share the workload across numerous smaller computers. Many hands make light work, as the saying goes.
Even as SETI@Home hits pause, there are other scientific projects that need your computer power. Some projects have to do with space, others with climate change or medicine.
Here are some promising and trusted distributed computing projects that you might want to look into:
Cosmology@Home – This project is trying to simulate the development of the universe and of understanding the conditions present when it all began. Cosmology@Home can be found under BOINC in the Berkeley system.
Clean Energy Project – Use your computer to help improve solar cells that store and transfer energy from the sun.
Rosetta@Home – Predict the structure of proteins to help cure disease – like COVID-19. Application updates are out now for current pandemic research. As an aside, I am involved with Rosetta, which is run out of the University of Washington’s Baker Lab. Find me there: Carl Kruse Rosetta Profile.
FightAIDS@Home – Advancements have been made but the battle rages on. Tons of data to be crunched here.
Climate Prediction – The world’s largest climate modeling project. This volunteer computing project helps answer climate change questions that will affect our future.
This is just a small sampling of the many great research projects that are underway. So if you love donating your computer’s time and energy, there is no shortage of projects that need your help. While we sit and wait for SETI to call us to the front lines again, we can still look for answers in other places. Keep dreaming, searching, and reaching, friends.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT org